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8 December 2011
Bronze age Britain revealed as never before

Six boats hollowed out of oak tree trunks are among hundreds of intact artefacts from 3,000 years ago that have been discovered in the Cambridgeshire fens of eastern England. The scale, quality and condition of the objects have astonished archaeologists - the largest bronze age collection ever found in one place in Britain - and barely a fraction of the site has been excavated. The dig is likely to continue for years.
     David Gibson, head of Cambridge University's archaeological unit, said the discoveries were internationally important. "One canoe would be great. Two, exceptional. Six almost feels greedy".
     The boats - two of which bear unusual decoration - are in such good condition that the wood grain and colour can be seen clearly, as can signs of repairs by their owners. One is 8.3 metres long; the smallest, just over 4 metres.
     Unique textile fragments, wicker baskets and wooden sword handles have survived. There are even containers of food, including a bowl with a wooden spoon still wedged into the contents, now analysed as nettle stew, which may have been a favourite dish in 1000 BCE.
     The artefacts were preserved because they were immersed in deep layers of peat and silt. When those layers are lifted off, "the objects are so pristine", said Mark Knight, the unit's senior project officer, "it's as if 3,000 years never happened."
     The artefacts were submerged under an ancient watercourse along the southern edge of the Flag Fen Basin, land altered over millennia by rising sea levels. Knight said: "In our [bronze age] landscape... you could have walked along the bottom of the fenland basin and to the bottom of the North Sea hunting for deer. By the Roman period, you were perched up at Peterborough, looking out over a huge expanse of peat and reed swamp."
     Along the 150-metre stretch of a bronze age river channel, they have found the best preserved example of prehistoric river life. There are weirs and fish traps in the form of big woven willow baskets, plus fragments of garments with ornamental hems made from fibrous bark and jewellery, including green and blue beads. Extensive finds of metalwork include bronze swords and spears, some apparently tossed into the river in perfect condition, possibly as votive offerings. One of the bronze age swords is of a type normally found in northern Spain.
     Knight said: "Often at an excavation, it takes much imagination for it to become apparent. This site doesn't need that. It's intact. It feels as if we've actually caught up the [bronze age] people. It feels like we're there."

Edited from The Guardian, Mail Online (4 December 2011)

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